Happiness in a Startup Job

Being Asian, I was brought up in a rather conservative family which puts importance in getting a good job for a good, established company. Early on however, my personal search of the ideal job has always been to find something with the right balance of work and life (a loose word that describes free, unscheduled time that I could never decide what to do with anyway). Considering I don’t do much outside of work, a better life at this point simply means less time working and more time living.

In my early search, my biggest concern was finding the right company that conforms to those ideals. The formula I had was simple; the company needed to be a startup, and the work needed to be creatively-fulfilling. These were two of my self-imposed requirements; they were proven tough to match in Malaysia, who had a fairly young startup scene at the time.

You start feeling like you’re working to serve corporations, not people.

I ended up working for a digital agency that had a startup-ish culture, and some of the most talented people. It was exciting for a while, but work quickly turned mundane. Contrary to general belief, “creative works” in an agency can quickly become uninspiring, largely contributed by the clients’ obsession with ‘how’ a project should be executed rather than ‘why’. This lack of purpose in your work fuels frustration; you start feeling like you’re working to serve corporations, not people.

But then, a much-needed break. A new team called Labs was formed within the company (to which I quickly expressed my interest), and it was the beginning of one of the most creatively-fulfilling period of my early career.

Working with a startup is, for most part, pretty close to what they advertise it to be. You have full autonomy over the work that you do, your working hours are more flexible, you get free food (or mostly snacks, in our case) plus many other freebies (conference tickets, client’s product discount etc). My workplace happiness spiked, and stayed at a high for the longest period of my career.

I was genuinely happy again.

But I also realised something else, that most of my happiness did not just come from those material perks. There’s a tremendous, often under-appreciated value in working with people with good heart — people who wants to see you grow, who sincerely care about you as a person, people who cares about the quality of work that gets produced, who pours their heart out into the work that they do. I was blessed to have been surrounded by such people.

Sometimes it’s easy to be distracted by all the material perks that startups offer to their employees today, to think that the more we get the happier we will be. What goes beyond those perks are the people. You can only consume so much material perks, but without good-hearted, talented people to call your colleagues and friends, your happiness curve would likely dwindle down as fast as it went up.